Tag Archives: DNA

Saving seeds

Bags of seeds by RawpixelThere are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy. 

A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants. 

His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.

But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today. 

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Creative Commons

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Wikimedia Commons

There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest. 

Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.

Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.”  Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.

Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.

Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in.  Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area. 

By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change. 

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange. 

The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.

Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.

By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

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The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

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Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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Transcendence on the headlands

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

One of the most transcendent moments of my life happened on the Marin headlands, within view of the glittering city of San Francisco and the elegant curve of the Golden Gate bridge. It was March 9, 2014, and the wildflower season had started. I had been hiking and photographing them for three hours, working my way uphill, out of sight of the ocean. I’d come through a variety of landscapes: the mostly dry meadows at the beginning of the hike, full of California poppies, cut through by a stream that gave willows a foothold. Then the rocky ups and downs of the even drier hills, their gravelly trails edged with pockets of shooting stars and milk maids. As I got closer to the juncture with the coastal trail, chaparral gradually took over, filling the air with the pungent smell of sagebrush.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey-Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

By the time I got to the top of the headland, tired, ready to head downhill and find my car, it was dusk. The Pacific, living up to its name, lay serene and luminous ahead of me. In memory, the city isn’t there. It was all silver light, on the rolling hills behind me, the pale gray twilit leaves, the stone escarpment in front of me, on the  sea, in the air. The warm spice of the feathery sage filled me, contrasting with the cool light.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) taken at Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California. Each flower is about the size of a quarter.

As I began to move again, I was suddenly overcome with the wildness of the place, and my place in it. Completely aware of this living, breathing convergence of life — the soft wind off the shimmering ocean, the ancient rocks, the growing dark, the scent from the ghostly plants, the woman walking. I was both dissolved into it and moving, whole, embodied, through it, a wild creature myself. I felt a great, exultant love for every pulsing molecule around me, and equally for the feeling of being in it, part of it, the part that could move through itself, through the lingering heat and the cooling breeze. That could feel the silver light work its way through my cells.

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) King Mountain, Tiburon, California, by Betsey Crawford

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

I would love to live in that state of open-souled awe every moment of my life. All sorts of things — grocery store lines, traffic, dentist appointments, the grief at a loved one’s illness —  work against such a possibility. I am often, in the poet Wordsworth’s words, surprised by joy; but after opening his poem with that line,  the rest speaks only of loss. Transcendence routinely rises, and is swept away by the mundane. The memories — I still remember another night of silvery, windy light under a full moon when I was 18 — can stay a long time. And there are many small, seemingly inconsequential moments of joy — a sleepy child’s arms around your neck, sunlight filling a winter room,  the sudden call of cicadas, telling you midsummer has arrived. But feeling completely dissolved into the natural world I love so much is rare, and I have been hugging that moment since.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Though perfectly happy to feel transcendence without figuring out why we have this wonderful ability, as a lover of all things DNA I am intrigued by philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that awe has been chosen by evolution to more firmly attach us to life on this earth. The more delight we take in living, the more we will strive to survive and reproduce. He feels that our pleasure in being alive and connected to the beauty and enchantment around us is the basis for an innate spirituality, something we knew long before we created religions to explain it.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’m a little resistant to reducing awe to the biological imperative to reproduce, though I love the idea that evolution would choose something so entrancing to ground us to our planet. I prefer the thought — echoing cultural ecologist Thomas Berry, Buddhist Alan Watts, cosmologist Carl Sagan — that consciousness is the result of the long, slow evolution of the universe’s ability to contemplate itself, to turn eyes on its wildflowers and silver seas, ears to its birdsong and rushing water, skin to the feel of stone, of bark.

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are the size of a dime.

But even this lovely thought doesn’t quite reflect what I felt that evening on the Marin headlands. I didn’t feel that I was the universe reflecting on itself, I felt like I was the universe. And not merely one infinitesimal expression of it. And not — though I love this fact — that I and the radiant molecules around me were all made of the same elements, descended from the same stars. I felt, briefly and gloriously, that there was no distinction between me and the vast, wild, perilous, gorgeous cosmos.

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Spruce family planning

One of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

White spruce (Picea glauca) with many cones during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree, in this case white spruce (Picea glauca).

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

The den of a red squirrel (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey CrawfordEvery few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer, I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

The leafy den of a red squirrel (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counterexample was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden grew more and more luxuriantly, and even unusually deep in color.

Blue flowers in an East Hampton, New York, garden. Designed and photographed by Betsey CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

Many dens of red squirrels (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

I love all this because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

White spruce (Picea glauca) cones on the forest floor during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

 

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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